Trite end-of-year thing #7: Odin Sphere

And my uninspiring, unimaginative filler content continues apace with my seventh favorite game of the year.

Odin Sphere
Vanillaware/Atlus | PlayStation 2 | RPG-ish thing

There is a secret to getting the most out of Odin Sphere: do not play it all in one go.

Part RPG, part action brawler, part storybook puppet show, Odin Sphere is a sixty-hour game divided into twelve-hour chunks which, in the aggregate, can become crushingly repetitive. The long-awaited (by a few dozen people) follow-up to Princess Crown is a minor masterpiece, but it also demonstrates the failings of the industry that birthed the game — or at the very least, it arrived about a year too soon, on the wrong platform. Had each of its five chapters arrived two months apart from one another as $10 chunks of episodic content on Xbox 360, it would probably be hailed far and wide as a work of genius. Instead, it can feel like a little too much repackaging of too little content.

That is a shame, because Odin Sphere offers more than just its obvious strengths (namely, those amazing graphics and a typically delicate Hitoshi Sakimoto score). It’s a beautiful game, pushing 2D visuals that absolutely work the PS2 to its limits (witness some of the sloggier boss battle for slow-riffic examples) — and, perhaps more importantly, 2D visuals that seem to be a forgotten art in an era of five-pass textures and HDR lighting. Not that there’s anything wrong with looking as beautiful as BioShock or Halo 3… but seeing that old techniques and styles haven’t been forgotten is, well, heartening. In a world of corporate radio-friendly rock anthems, Odin Sphere is a quiet folk tune; a little rough, a little simplistic, but heartfelt.

And charmingly quirky, if you’re willing to get into the creator’s head. Otherwise, it’s just plan quirky.

Odin Sphere is a game that’s very much about cycles and repetition — every stage is circular, menus are presented as rings, and each of the five playable characters cover much of the same ground as the others. Taken in a single dose, it can feel almost oppressive, especially given the fairly limited nature of combat. You attack, you block, you do a jumping attack, you cast limited magic spells.

Yet that’s really sort of the point, and whether you see this circularity as a strength or a weakness is what determines your like or dislike of the game. For me, Odin Sphere’s gameplay is almost rhythmic — a sensation enhanced by its unconventional item “crafting” system, which sees you planting and harvesting seeds that are almost literally watered with the blood of your fallen foes. Generally, each level consists of a few minutes of manic intensity followed by a few moments of quiet in which I took time to collect the various fruits, roots and, uh, sheep summoned forth by my combat horticulture.

And in these steady rhythms, the whole of game takes shape. Turns out that this shape is fractal. The cycles of battle and the circular battlefields are reflected by the consistent progressions of each different world, which in turn give form to the Roshomon-style narrative. Admittedly, the story would be stronger if it came clean and used actual Norse mythological figures rather than thinly-veiled analogues. Yet even this failing isn’t particularly painful, since the watered-down Valkyries and gods and mortals are still written as sympathetic characters with sufficient pathos and personality to drive the story.

Certainly it’s not the sort of game that plays to everyone’s preferences — taken as a whole, it threatens to be grindingly dull. Taken chapter-by-chapter, though, Odin Sphere is an intriguing, involving and idiosyncratic experience.

24 thoughts on “Trite end-of-year thing #7: Odin Sphere

  1. Something that struck me about this game was the feeling that nothing is wasted in your inventory. If you have throwaway items you work them into your alchemy materials. Hell, even after eating meat you get to use the bones for something. Every process you go through to enhance your character produces by-products that set you up for another. This gives momentum to what in every other game is a pretty sluggish practice.

  2. I definitely agree. I took a break from the game after Cornelius, and coming back to it after some time away it felt fresh again. Odin Sphere is my personal game of the year. It…really was the only “current” game I played in 2007, so that’s the caveat. Still, I loved every minute of it.

  3. I found Odin Sphere to be tedious and frustrating at first. Then, once I understood the inventory and alchemy mechanics, and started trying to make the most of them rather than fight them, it became addictive and brilliant. Even the repetition of boss and mook battles highlights the differences between the characters. Though I do wish there was a bit more variety there, particularly in light of the Armageddon battles.

    Plus, the plot and dialogue are disgustingly good. I can’t wait to see what they do with their upcoming Wii title.

  4. they’re doing an upcomming wii title???

    anyway, I think Parish’s x360 idea is brilliant. I hope they think of that. Though I’m generally very apprehensive about episodic delivery, I think it would be a great way to get this game onto the radars and into the hard drives of way more consoles. Hopefully their original artwork was in higher res? So strapping together a HD version wouldn’t be too much work, right? at 5-7-10 bucks a pop, I think it would compete fabulously with the other DL content available.

    but why do I feel like it will never happen?.. : /

  5. Bravo! This game has gotten far too much hate directed at it, pretty much because of the repetition.

  6. Make sure to play other games in between–Protip of the year.

    It’s sad that this is true, actually. I think I don’t like this game. I was totally ready to finish off the game, but the endgame grind required me to play through the whole game again. Huh!

    Still, I’m on board for the Wii game thing they’re doing.

  7. Taking it in bite-sized chunks is good advice. I got to the endgame, realized I would have to replay every single character’s campaign from the beginning to stock back up on items (especially Gwendolyn and Cornelius), and am taking a break. I still want to finish it, but…it may be a LONG break.

  8. I also played this game in chunks, only an hour or 2 a day for 4-5 days a week. It did really help to alleviate the repetitiveness of it. Although it did take me 4 months to beat it.

    Thad – For the endgame, I found it was not necessary to replay a characters story entirely, it was only necessary to get the inventory and stats to where you want them, and then save and stop. The endgame uses that information when you select the character.

  9. I wanted to love this game but I couldn’t. I just didn’t find it fun. The slowdown was awful and the gameplay was repetitive. I also didn’t like how few things I was able to hold in my inventory.

    I think Parish said it best “There is a secret to getting the most out of Odin Sphere: do not play it.”

    I may have added some punctuation there to omit the last part of the sentence. :)

    I am looking forward to their next game though. I really love the art and I’m hoping the next game will get the rest right for me. :)

  10. I feel like an idiot now.

    I loved Odin Sphere but got quite sick of it after a while.

    It’s EPISODIC. Why didn’t I take a break? I did that with Phoenix Wright and it turned out beautifully.

  11. Halo 3 looks generic and like shit. But, you are a stealth marketer, so you can’t have a proper opinion.

  12. Parish is a stealth marketer?
    He has been playing a lot of Metal Gear Solid 3. Maybe that was just training for his stealth marketing mission.
    If I see a Cardboard box coming at me with a copy of Halo 3 on it I’ll know he’s after me.

  13. Ben – You can’t hold much stuff in your inventory because you aren’t supposed to hold much stuff in your inventory. The game’s designed to reward you for blowing through items as fast as you can, because it gives you a constant stream of replacements. Compare and contrast with, say, Paper Mario. There, not only is your inventory very limited, but shops or other sources of useful items are few and far between.

    Thad – To expand on Sinister’s point, just get each character to the point where you can get Elixirs or whatever other items you need.

  14. I tried to look up “Roshomon” because I didn’t know what it meant, only to be told that it’s “Rashomon”, with an “a” as the second letter. I have such faith in your use of the English language that I assume your typos are merely references to ever more obscure works.

  15. Eh? I even looked up the title. I thought it was “Rashomon” but everyone on the Internet told me, “No, it’s Roshomon.” Whatever.

    I’m not sure who that “stealth marketer” idiot is, but since it takes a single click to ban him I will be happy to keep clicking for as long as he wants to spew his stupidity. it is more work for him to troll than for me to excise.

  16. Not sure where the Halo 3 hate came from. To take the bait, I liked the lighting, and it was neat to see those trees from The Lion King in 3-d. The human faces were scary though. How old is Half-Life 2? Wait, we were talking about niche 2D, not mainstream 3D. Odin Sphere looks nice. I wish more companies would explore the possibilities of 2d on next gen systems. I wish Akiman (SF Alpha, Powerstone, Rivasl Schools) still worked on games. To bad he quit Capcom, I will miss his work. To see the effect of his departure, look to the new Commando game.

  17. Oh, Odin Sphere! I’m sorry I didn’t finish you and then traded you in to raise money for a 360! You were the prettiest game I ever played! *sobs*

  18. Ahh, Odin Sphere. I loved playing that game, but those green globs in Cornelius’ last level… I just couldn’t do it.

  19. I think Odin Sphere is one of the greatest looking games of the year. I also think it has the worst level design(if you can call it that) of any game I’ve ever played.

  20. I really liked Odin Sphere, but the slowdown was just unforgivable. I didn’t appreciate having to fight certain bosses countless times since I could barely even move. It must be admitted though that the game needs to be seen in motion to fully appreciate it. The sprites breathe….

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